MAN ABOUT TOWN: Inside Story on Oakwood Apartments
If, like me, you have a tax bill from the City of Falls Church due December 5, you might be interested to read about Oakwood Apartments. That’s the 576-unit short-term rental complex on Roosevelt Boulevard, adjoining Oakwood Cemetery. The proximity is just a coincidence: although Oakwood Cemetery dates to 1799, the first Oakwood apartment complex was built in 1969 in San Diego, California.
The brand expanded under the name “Oakwood Corporate Apartments,” with the idea that business people away from home for several weeks or months would much prefer living in a furnished apartment over a hotel room, especially if the price were the same.
My first encounter with Oakwood Apartments was in 1990, when I bought a Volkswagen van from a colleague in the U.S. Foreign Service. He was moving to Australia, and couldn’t take his van with him. I picked up the van at Oakwood, where he and his family were living for a few weeks until they boarded their plane.
In the years since then, Oakwood Apartments has become increasingly popular for short-term rentals by my colleagues at the State Department. And not just for a month or two – many State employees stay for a year, or at least a school year. Because if you’re in the Foreign Service and have school-age children, the City of Falls Church has become THE place to locate for short stays between overseas assignments.
It’s not just at Oakwood, of course. The town house adjacent to mine has been rented as short term furnished housing to State Department employees for two of the last three years. Each family had several children in school. And another colleague of mine moved to Pearson Square specifically until her son finishes high school.
But Oakwood remains the most popular. Why? Perhaps it’s the free shuttle service Oakwood provides to the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, next to the National Guard facility at the corner of Route 50 and George Mason Drive. This is the State Department’s language school, offering 26 weeks’ instruction in “world” languages like Spanish and French, and 44-week courses in “hard” languages like Arabic and Chinese. Another plus for Oakwood is its proximity to the East Falls Church Metro stop – with the choice of walking or taking another convenient shuttle bus.
I don’t know exactly when Oakwood was built, but I’m guessing early 1980s, after it was known that the Orange Line Metro would be built nearby. At the time, City officials doubtlessly saw the complex as a win-win for the City. “Corporate” apartments were for businessmen, right? Not school children.
But statistics compiled by Falls Church City Schools tell an expensive story of unintended consequences: the student boom at Oakwood.
When I bought the VW from my colleague, there were 12 students living at Oakwood attending City schools. That was the 1989-90 school year. Five years later, in 1994, the student population had increased to 20. By 1999 it was 45. In 2002 it rose to 67. And today that number stands at 92 students. The entire City Schools population is 1,993, so Oakwood Temporary Housing represents close to 5 percent of the City’s students.
I guess we should be proud. A few years ago I ran into a colleague I had known in Brussels, who was back at FSI for language training. I knew he owned a house in Alexandria, near Old Town, so I was surprised to see him standing out front of FSI, waiting for the Oakwood shuttle bus. Here’s the story: While undergoing long-term training for an overseas assignment, the government will pay your housing costs in Washington – except if you live in your own house. Then you get nothing. So my friend continued to rent out his Alexandria home while he and his family stayed at Oakwood, and his two sons attended City schools. I certainly don’t blame him.
Now let’s do the numbers: The nice round figure I’m hearing about cost per student in City schools is $20,000. Maybe that factors in anticipated bond servicing for building a new school, because the raw math ($30 million divided by 2,000 students) is $15,000. Taking the lower figure, the cost to the City for the 92 students at Oakwood is $1.38 million. This year the City is collecting $744,000 in taxes from Oakwood, or $636,000 less than will be spent on Oakwood school children. That figure of course doesn’t include any of the other costs the City incurs in providing services to Oakwood.
Comments on this topic in the past have included the sentiment that it’s just wrong to single out one sector of the housing market and then point fingers. I disagree, and here’s why: when my family moved to Falls Church in 2002, we sent two children to City schools, and my taxes did not begin to cover the education expense to the City. But one child graduated in 2004 and the other in 2008. We didn’t move away, so now it’s payback time. And that’s generally the case – families don’t leave the City as soon as their children grow up – if they did, the City would have gone bankrupt long ago.
But in temporary housing such as Oakwood, parents are much more likely to locate in the City strictly for the time their children are attending school here. Oakwood is on its way to becoming a million-dollar annual drain on the City, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
By George Southern
November 16, 2009